Cataclysmic events can tear down the symbols of what it means to be a family, a community or a nation.
Sometimes the symbols are structures; sometimes they are people.
Disaster forces us to rebuild our physical and our symbolic lives. It also offers us a chance to reassess what we need in such reconstructions and what materials we have with which to build.
We can decide what to keep and what to make anew, always thinking about how we can represent and protect ourselves better this time around.
Yesterday, as the US contemplated the 21st anniversary of 9/11, its cataclysmic event, the UK was still experiencing its own, more predictable yet somehow no less affecting: the death of a 96-year-old woman.
I was in Washington DC 21 years ago, as correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. I watched the Pentagon burn and saw hundreds of its occupants streaming out of the building, some nursing injuries, all shocked.
That day left Americans in a similar state: some thousands were killed and hurt, but all were stunned by the destruction of symbols.
For the architects of the attack on America understood the value of symbolism.
That was why they attacked the Twin Towers, representing America’s huge wealth and sprawling influence on the planet, the Pentagon representing its military presence and menace and – whether the final plan’s intended target was the White House or more likely the US Capitol – icons of its system of government.
In the days, months and years that followed, I watched America begin its response, which looked at from the vantage point of 21 years, was so deeply flawed.
Its military response leapt from a logical attack on Afghanistan, now back in the same state that it was before 9/11, to the illogical and vituperative attack on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The injustice of distorting evidence in order to use the 2001 attacks to justify completing the uncompleted Gulf War still resonates around the Western World and undermined faith in democratic government on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the UK.
The state of the US system of government today is obvious to anyone to look at and derives at least in part from that undermining of faith.
The commercial response to 9/11 was to enshrine the goodness of New York’s financial identity and unleash still greater freedoms for its capital of capitalism. And seven years later that bastion was in ruins.
The Global Financial Crisis not only destroyed wealth and jobs, but, as I have argued in my book To Be Fair, destroyed our sense of fairness, because those who caused the disruptions went unpunished and those who were already suffering its effects were the ones expected to pay the bill.
I also remember that the initial response to 9/11 was in words, not deeds. Americans shook the shock off themselves and began to think and write in television and film scripts, in newspaper and academic articles, in whole magazines and books, all about what they had lost, why they had lost it and how they could rebuild.
I am a great admirer of Americans as a people, if not their governance or their commerce, but I doubt many of them spent yesterday thinking how well their nation had responded to its cataclysm.
So what of us in Britain? What should we do? What can we use to rebuild our sense of who we are and why we matter?
Looking around us, we already had a community and a nation to reconstruct even before our symbol was torn down.
It may seem crass to compare the death of one woman with the thousands of deaths directly and indirectly caused by 9/11, but as I said, cataclysms come in different forms. They offer similar problems and similar chances to change.
If we have made any kind of start already, it is in the quality of the writing that has already been spawned by our cataclysm. Our consideration of what to learn from disaster has begun in words, not yet deeds.
Much of it, such as this poignant article by Janice Turner or the profoundly brilliant analysis of Jonathan Freedland, explain how that 96-year-old woman connected us with a past that we can now choose to learn from or reject. Or perhaps, being British, a compromise of the two.
Other pieces look further back in history in order to look into the future, such as this by Jeremy Cliffe, or link the history of both the countries I have been talking about, as in this short but important piece by the Canadian-born conservative commentator, David Frum.
In it, he writes:
The British stumbled upon an unexpectedly powerful idea: Sever the symbolism of the state from the political power of the state, and bestow those two different governing roles on two different people.
It created a polity in which power has little majesty – Frum points to the small flat in which the Prime Minister lives - and majesty has little power. That is the innovative secret of success, he believes.
Frum says the Queen was admired and loved because “she submerged every aspect of her individuality to a discipline” of exercising merely influence and not power.
The British genius is the ability to wrap institutional innovations in fake antiquity. The American struggle is to wrestle outdated institutions into the modern age.
You might think that the antiquity Frum talks about is all about Victorian pageantry, but the swap the British monarchy did of power for majesty took place two centuries earlier, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William III and his Queen Mary agreed to rule as the first constitutional monarchs in return for the support of the British establishment.
Fittingly in the era of John Locke, the godfather of fairness, whose Two Treatises of Government was the blueprint of that new type of monarchy, it was a fair exchange, a compromise between the unfettered power of autocratic kings and the uncertainty of Cromwellian republicanism.
That is the tradition for which the Queen stood. Which we may now lose if we do not think and act with care and thought.
She stood for a moment when Britain stood for fairness, not in a whimsical, sports-field sense, but as a concept that embodies the opposite of tyranny.
We should feel proud of her and by extension ourselves. But not for long.
The idealised Britain she stood for is still detectable today, but distantly, through a gauze, not in plain sight.
Tyranny, by contrast, is close by and crystal clear. We have a choice. We have a model.
We can change how we are by remaining the same as she was and by standing up for fairness. Opportunities to change the way a nation sees itself and its priorities are rare, thankfully.
They coincide with tragedy and menace, just as they did in the face of dictatorship or terrorism. Today is another opportunity in that mould.
That is why the moment of mourning needs soon to be over.
It is the dawn of a day when Britain can choose to relegate partisanship and prejudice to being the hobbies of the inadequate and instead promote the idea of fairness - fairness as the light of human association - to the centre of our lives again.
Ben Fenton is the author of To Be Fair – the Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century (Mensch Publishing)